It was like old times at a mid-May jazz jam in Downtown Annapolis at the Maryland Inn’s former King of France Tavern space featuring the Chuck Underwood Trio. Pictured, from left, are Byron McWilliams, Mark Lysher and Underwood. (Denisa Protani photo)

Area jazz fans well remember the King of France Tavern. A famous destination at the top of Main Street in Downtown Annapolis, the bistro at the historic Maryland Inn was also the home port of jazz great Charlie Byrd and attracted many other greats of the genre.

The venue shuttered in December 2019, but the space recently reopened as an eatery for hotel guests ― and wouldn’t you know it, on May 13 hosted a jazz jam featuring the Chuck Underwood Trio.

That news flash has area music fans buzzing into a loud hum about whether the legendary venue, in a Baltimore-Washington region with a gazillion entertainment options, might officially reopen.

‘Speakeasy feel’

Denisa Protani, among others, sees the potential. The local marketing consultant booked the show and said, “The audience that night was glad to have live jazz back in that venue and are looking forward to the next event.”

Mentioning its “speakeasy kind of feel,” Protani said she’d like to see jazz shows “and performances of other and genres” in the Tavern, too.

Underwood has played across the region and around the world with the likes of Patti LaBelle and Gregg Karukas for 45 years. He’s played many a gig at the Tavern and is also encouraged by recent events. “It’s an iconic room that’s right up there with (Washington, D.C.’s) Blues Alley,” he said. “I’m happy that Denisa is making the effort.” 

He recalled when Byrd “putting [the Tavern] on the map and other big deal area artists playing there,” including O’Donel Levy, Monty Alexander, Ethel Ennis,” etc., as well as those with national reputations like Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Chet Baker.

Guitarist Charlie Byrd, seen in this 1976 photo performing at the White House, was a dominant presence at the King of France Tavern in Annapolis. (Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)

“They would play Blues Alley, then come play the Tavern,” Underwood said, pointing to another encouraging sign that perhaps all the Baltimore-Washington market needs is some nurturing.

“Look at Keystone Korner (which opened in 2019 in the Baltimore’s Harbor East). It’s doing great and I hope it becomes what its legendary [namesake] venue in San Francisco was.”

Back in the state capital, Underwood’s group has also played the smaller 49 West, which also presents jazz. “If we all stick to our guns,” he said “we might just see a renaissance.”

More support

More kudos came from a man who can dictate where this road will lead: Maryland Inn General Manager Kenneth White. He was “overjoyed by the attendance and the overall vibe in the building,” on May 13. “The musicians were absolutely amazing and everyone appeared to really enjoy themselves.” 

He, too, is imagining the Tavern’s rebirth, which he estimates would cost up to about $30,000. It’s “an integral part of our history at Historic Inns of Annapolis” and in the community. “Any chance we get to promote it or be a part of something wonderfully creative we will be looked at very positively,” White said, recalling legends Earl “Fatha” Hines, Ethel Ennis and John Pizzarelli performing in the Tavern.

“We have a wonderful foundation and the manpower to make it happen,” he said. “(Annapolis) has shown itself to be a proven market, so my feeling is that with a little hard work and innovation, anything is possible.” 

Fans on hand

Todd Barkan knows that starting any musical entity, let alone a jazz venue, in the mid-Atlantic is tough. The owner of the 180-seat Keystone, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and recipient of the Service Award at this year’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival knew it would be “a herculean challenge” to find success when he opened Baltimore’s first jazz club since the 1988 closing of Ennis-owned Ethel’s Place.

But Barkan invested more than $100,000 in the venture and toils practically around the clock. He thinks the market “for straight-ahead acoustic jazz is challenging, but it’s strong for smooth jazz, R&B and soul,” also citing the “great number of area jazz fans, if it’s presented in an economically viable and welcoming situation.

“The music has to be presented with love and care,” he said, noting that Keystone’s Steinway Model B “is tuned at least once a week.”

That’s all part of dealing with today’s market. “I came here after long stints in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo,” said Barkan, “and had been spoiled because I’ve always presented the highest quality performers without wondering if people will show up. That’s not the case now,” due to the pandemic and Baltimore not having a full-time club for decades.”

Still, it’s onward and upward. “I’m not doing this for the money,” he said, “but for the market. It just has to be cultivated, developed and balanced.”

Market analysis

That’s the goal in Downtown Columbia, too, where music fans can visit The Collective for dinner and a show at 155-plus capacity Encore, where co-owner Staci Samaras is hinting about founding a new jazz festival this fall. That news, combined with the possible return of the King of France, an ecosystem is developing.

Blues Alley Owner Harry Schnipper said Barkan “has a different model and the Maryland Inn would be yet another,” since it accommodates about 60 people,” with Blues Alley holding about 130 hungry (it’s a supper club) jazz lovers.

Schnipper, a former Annapolis resident, thinks the reopening of the Tavern, where he saw “Zoot” Sims, Phil Woods and many other greats perform, would be “brilliant,” with “three to four nights of performances a week.”

Also noting the Maryland Inn’s advantage of being able to accommodate and feed the artists, he said analyzing the market “from a real estate perspective” is the right approach, considering “local income levels and the number of parking spaces in the immediate area.”

It then “comes down to talent buying,” Schnipper said. “You have to reach a price point where a night at the Tavern would be equivalent to dinner and a movie.”

Gavin Buckley, a restaurateur and the musically-inclined mayor of Annapolis, noted the city’s “lack of critical mass” within a population of about 40,000. Still, he added that, “We have a pretty good reach,” especially during tourist season. “If the Inn is marketed properly, it could be a big success.”

Protani agreed. She feels that offering a cover charge attached to the check, with the artist dictating the amount, “would be good idea for the Maryland Inn.

“There’s a jazz base out there,” she said. “It just has to be cultivated.”

One reply on “Can the central Md. jazz market hit a new high note?”

  1. Recently several of us promoted a jazz cabaret at the classic theater of Md at 1804 west street. It was visualized to be the first of an annual jazz fest. Mike Noonan and Sally Boyett produced the show. Ellen Moyer and Arlene Berlin and Deborah Anderson imitated the idea abd heloedcrsuse money. I have written about jazz in Annapolis and Paul
    Pearson.. it would be great to continue this effort begun on April 30 at the Md Inn and a larger jazz fest all over town in the future. I propose all of us with this interest meet up, talk about how to bring back the Inn Jazz center and collaborate Rec to make this happen. If interested please contact me atc443 370-1785 ellen Moyer

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